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Illinois’ SWE Helps Shape Well-Rounded Female Engineers Via a Plethora of Opportunities

October 5, 2018

At SWE's spring 2018 Introduce-a-Girl-to-Engineering Day, a high school student experiences the human brain during BMES's virutal reality session.At SWE's spring 2018 Introduce-a-Girl-to-Engineering Day, a high school student experiences the human brain during BMES's virutal reality session.

According to Abby Pakeltis, president of the Illinois Chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, SWE is “a one-stop shop in a student organization.” Through SWE, its membership of more than 200 female undergraduate engineering students can grow professionally, including networking with companies and their representatives; technically, through Team Tech; personally, and socially. “We have a lot of committees that can satisfy everything you're looking for,” she continues.

Helping SWE members grow and get connected professionally is SWE’s Professional Liaison Committee, led by its director, Jenny Marten. This committee’s job is to connect with companies in order to bring some of their representatives to campus for workshops, talks, and other events which help SWE members both grow professionally and network with the companies.

MechSE junior Jenna Kummerer at SWE's Be Professional night.MechSE junior Jenna Kummerer at SWE's Be Professional night.

For instance, on September the 27th, SWE held its “Be Professional” event at the Illini Union, which it co-hosted with the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. Several companies, the Aerospace Corporation, Fermi National Accelerator Lab, Capital One, John Deere, and BP helped to sponsor the event, which featured a dinner and a talk by keynote speaker, Kara O’Donnell, Associate Director of The Aerospace’s Corporation’s Space Architecture Department. Plus, break-out sessions featured representatives from the various companies who spoke on different professional development topics. Also, SWE’s "Night of Networking" in the spring has similar activities, but with different sponsors.

MechSE junior Jenna Kummerer says she came to Be Professional for the good food and because it's a good way to talk to other SWE members as well as professionals in corporations. "Last year I was an officer for SWE, so I came and just really enjoyed it," she explains. "It's a good way to network, and the keynote speaker is always really inspirational. I like hearing women in STEM talk about their experience. It's always something interesting for me."

Kimya Buckner, a junior in CS & Linguistics.Kimya Buckner, a junior in CS & Linguistics.

SWE works hard to ensure that all female engineering students on campus are welcome in SWE—including those not in the College of Engineering. One such SWE member who took advantage of the Be Professional event was Kimya Buckner, a junior in CS & Linguistics. Students in the CS+ program in LAS (Liberal Arts and Sciences) can take CS+ Linguistics, Statistics, or Astronomy, to name a few. Regarding her major, Buckner takes most of the core classes CS Engineering students take, but in addition, takes linguistic courses that give her the foundations plus allow her to integrate natural language processing with computing.

Buckner shares why she got attended the Be Professional night. "This is my first year being a part of SWE," she acknowledges. "I decided I wanted to do something that was a bit more professionally oriented and I felt like this was a good opportunity to get to know other SWE members as well as do a bit of networking." Open to meeting people from different companies, she likes to see what their experience is like. "A company's culture is very important to me, so those are the type of things that I tend to speak to companies about."

Left to right: Fundraising Committee director Vera Liu, SWE member Isha Tyle, and Outreach Committee Co-chair Simran Vinaik prepare to enjoy the evening at SWE's recent Be Professional event. Left to right: Fundraising Committee director Vera Liu, SWE member Isha Tyle, and Outreach Committee Co-chair Simran Vinaik prepare to enjoy the evening at SWE's recent Be Professional event.

Helping SWE members grow in the more technical aspects of engineering is Team Tech, led by co-directors Olivia Barron and Savni Nagarkar, who while excited about SWE in general, are especially passionate about their area, Team Tech. During this national competition hosted by Boeing, participating universities form interdisciplinary teams of undergraduate students who work throughout the year on projects from various sponsoring companies, which SWE president Pakeltis calls more of a "year-long internship.”

A team discusses strategy during a game at SWE's Archery Tag tournament in 2017. (Image courtesy of Nika Steffen.)A team discusses strategy during a game at SWE's Archery Tag tournament in 2017. (Image courtesy of Nika Steffen.)

The idea is for the collegiate teams to create products that their corporate sponsors can use within their companies to solve problems. For example, this year, Illinois’ Team Tech is partnering with John Deere to build adaptive technology for their compact tractors. They recently began the project for this year and will be working on it until October of next year, when they’ll be presenting their work at the SWE 2019 National Conference in California.

Barron and Nagarkar report that, so far, the fall 2018 Team Tech has gotten a great start, with 20 new members of various majors and ages working on the project. “Our goal is to have a project that everyone can contribute to and learn from,” says Nagarkar.

Membership  Enrichment Committee director Nika Steffen at the recent Be Professional event. Membership Enrichment Committee director Nika Steffen at the recent Be Professional event.

According to the Membership Enrichment Committee director Nika Steffen, her overarching goal is to “create events that celebrate growth and diversity and challenge our members to push outside their comfort zones.” For this upcoming school year, she and her committee members are focused on doing more cross-committee events so SWE members are able to “Meet and Eat” (one of the events they host) with each other and grow their networks.

Their first upcoming event for the 2018–2019 academic year will be a Fall Workshop where participants will be decorating pumpkins and relaxing over cups of cider. Towards the end of this semester or next, Steffen plans on co-hosting a Multicultural Meet and Eat where members from all engineering societies can share their backgrounds and cultures (dances, holidays, foods, etc.).

Steffan adds that as her Committee's Intramural Chair last year, she was responsible for organizing sports games for SWE members. They ended the year with Archery Tag: a game similar to dodgeball, but with face-masks, real bows, and foam-tipped arrows. "We reached the maximum team capacity and even took home a few wins!" she brags.

A SWE DADDS participant and her dad have a great time bonding while makeing a rainbow jar. A SWE DADDS participant and her dad have a great time bonding while making a rainbow jar.

The big event of the year for the Recruitment Committee, led by director Claire Samojedny, is Little Sisters Weekend to be held in April 2019. Once students have been admitted but before they've officially committed to Illinois, they’re invited to visit campus for a weekend (Thursday–Saturday). Paired with SWE members, the visitors stay with Illinois students in their dorms or apartments, go to class with them, plus attend any departmental meetings or fun events going on. The idea is to expose potential students to the many support systems available at Illinois. With a  SWE membership of over 200, quite a few prospective students can be expected to show up for the event.

According to Berat Gulecyuz, Director of SWE’s Community Service Committee, her goal is to promote a service-oriented mindset in the SWE membership. ”Volunteering and giving back to the community is one of the most important ways to have a positive impact, not only on our campus, but the world. Therefore, this year, we are looking to encourage and inspire every member of SWE to get involved in something they are passionate about, whether it be animals, outreach, science-related activities, or anything else.”

Left to  right: SWE members </strong>Taylor Wills and Dionora Osmani hold notebooks they made  out of one-sided recycled white paper, complete with a cereal box or cardstock cover, which  they decorated themselves, as part of SWE's Project Paplet. (Image courtesy of Berat Gulecyuz.) Left to right: SWE members Taylor Wills and Dionora Osmani hold notebooks they made out of one-sided recycled white paper, complete with a cereal box or cardstock cover, which they decorated themselves, as part of SWE's Project Paplet. (Image courtesy of Berat Gulecyuz.)

For instance, during the recent iHelp, the campus' largest day of service held on September 22nd, SWE organized Project Paplet, with the goal of goal of reducing paper waste and educating people on the environmental benefits of recycling. The project involved reusing paper to make notebooks.

One event Gulecyuz is super excited about hosting is the Girl Scout Workshops, which are completely run by SWE. In years past, around 60 girls hoping to earn their science badges have attended. “It is amazing to see the direct impact we can have on the community while having our committee chairs learn about what goes into planning events with large-scale organizations such as Girl Scouts of Illinois.”

Gulecyuz is hopeful that her committee can help SWE members to “grow and become the best version of themselves.”

Social Committee director Amanda Batista at the recent Be Professional event. Social Committee director Amanda Batista at the recent Be Professional event.

The Information & Marketing (Info Mark) committees, led by directors Dana Sim (Information) and Melissa Doyiakos (Marketing), work to promote SWE and its events via a variety of media, including electronic, such as through social media like Facebook, and printed matter, such as flyers. Comprised of engineering majors, Info Mark also welcomes students from other majors as a way to bring in different skill sets. For example, in the past they’ve had a few graphic design majors or students from similar majors.

With the goal of sharing their passion for and knowledge of STEM in order to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers, especially targeting underrepresented populations such as girls and minority students, SWE’s Outreach Committee is headed up by co-chairs Simran Vinaik and Micki Rentauskas. Outreach activities include both larger, one-time, day-long events on campus, a couple each semester, as well as recurring weekly or monthly events with community partners, such as local schools. SWE’s large fall events include: Introduce-a-Girl-to-Engineering Day (IGED), scheduled for 10/27/18; and Mommy Me and SWE, a day-long event for middle school girls and their moms, to be held in November. Spring outreach events include Engineering Round Robin, which will be in February 2019, and DADDS (Dads and Daughters Do Science), scheduled for some time in April. In addition, SWE does numerous STEM outreach activities at Engineering Open House.

SWE members at their barn dance social event.
SWE members at their barn dance social event.

Also, to ensure well-rounded engineering students, SWE’s Social Committee, led by director Amanda Batista, schedules fun social activities like the October 6th semi formal Barn Dance, and happy hours. Pakeltis calls these events, a “fun way to get to know people.”

Also serving as a member of SWE’s Officer Board is graduate student Meredith Richardson, who serves as a bridge to foster collaboration between GradSWE, an entirely separate organization for grad students, and SWE. GradSWE serves in more of a mentoring role. For instance, its members give talks geared towards undergraduate students considering graduate school, as well as sharing their wisdom with SWE members individually through coffee chats. In addition, GradSWE hosts a huge conference every year called WE STEM which is for graduate students, but undergrads are also invited. 

Local mother and daughter Ashanti and Camille Files enjoy the 2017 Mommy, Me, and SWE outreach.
Local mother and daughter Ashanti and Camille Files enjoy the 2017 Mommy, Me, and SWE outreach.

Busy engineering students with a vigorous course of study, many SWE members admit that they take time to serve as directors or members of SWE’s various committees not only to gain leadership experience and hone their skills, but also as a way of giving back. For instance, Abby Pakeltis indicates that that’s why she serves as SWE president. “SWE has been all encompassing in my college career,” she says. “I started as a freshman, and it was how I found good people to go to for helping me figure out what I wanted to do in engineering. It gave me opportunities that I don't think I could have found anywhere else.”

One opportunity in which Pakeltis participated early on was Team Tech. According to Pakeltis, it gave her technical experience as a freshman, which she says, “is hard to come by. It's a really cool project and opportunity.”

She reports that becoming the director of  Team Tech her sophomore year enabled her to “get more involved and give the opportunity to other people, find a good project, and be a good leader. And also give back to what the directors gave me.”

In fact, it was basically as a result of participating in Team Tech that she landed a job once she graduates in May 2019.

Abby Pakeltis interacting with EOH visitors playing at the air hockey table she helped build.Abby Pakeltis interacting with young visitors playing at the air hockey table she helped build for the 2016 Engineering Open House.

Here’s how it happened. When she was director of Team Tech her sophomore year, her team worked with John Deere. “That helped me learn about them as a company,” she explains. “And now I'll be working for them. I interned with them twice. Because I was working with them in Team Tech, I was led to pursue that opportunity.” From that experience, she says she learned “the importance of reaching out to corporate sponsors and seeing how they can support our members.”

Pakeltis indicates that SWE also gives members the opportunity to connect, not just with professionals and other undergrads, but grad students as well. For instance SWE holds grad school coffee chats to help students successfully navigate the application process, as well as learn exactly what it is you want to do in grad school.

“That's why I love SWE, and why I wanted to be president. Just to have the opportunity to provide opportunities for people, because the officers before me did a great job at providing them for me.”


Story by Betsy Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative. Photos by Betsy Innes unless otherwise noted.

More: 8-12 Outreach, Engineering, SWE, Women in STEM, 2018

For additional I-STEM web articles about the Society of Women in Engineering, see:

SWE members do the
SWE members do the "Go team!" thing prior to last year's Archery Tag tournament. (Image courtesy of Nika Steffen.)

Involved in a SWE outreach at Leal school during her freshman year, Abby Pakeltis interacts with a kindergartener about the best way to build her marshmallow-toothpick structure. Involved in a SWE outreach at Leal school during her freshman year, Abby Pakeltis interacts with a kindergartener about the best way to build her marshmallow-toothpick structure.